When it comes to abortion, most Americans know what they want — and what they want will not please either Planned Parenthood or the Vatican.
What they want is compromise. What they want are shades of gray.
In a Harris Interactive survey, 9 percent of participants agreed that abortion should be legal for any reason at any point during a pregnancy. On the other side, 11 percent wanted a total ban.
In between were plenty of Americans who back legalized abortion but, to one degree or another, want to see restrictions. The sponsors of the national survey were amazed.
"We remain opposed to abortion, which means we oppose any procedure that seeks to destroy the life of an unborn child. That isn't going to change," said Deidre McQuade, speaking for the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "But what we are seeing is growing evidence that most Americans do want to see abortion restricted and limited."
That's why the bishops are hailing these results, even though most of the numbers point toward compromises that fall short of the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.
Looking at the extremes, the survey asked whether abortion should be "illegal in all circumstances" or "legal for any reason at any time during pregnancy." But in between, participants could say that abortion should remain legal to "save the life of the mother" or legal in cases involving rape or incest. They could also say that abortion should be legal "for any reason" during the first three months or the first six months of pregnancy.
In addition to the 11 percent who wanted a total ban, 38 percent backed restricting abortion to cases of rape, incest or a threat to the mother's life. Another 33 percent endorsed limiting abortion to the first three or six months of pregnancy.
Asked if they opposed or supported specific policies restricting abortion, 88 percent of those who stated opinions backed informed consent laws requiring abortion providers to tell women of the risks to their physical and psychological health and about alternatives to abortion.
Also, 76 percent of those expressing opinions favored laws that "protect doctors and nurses from being forced to perform or refer for abortions against their will" and 73 percent supported laws that "require giving parents the chance to be involved in their minor daughter's abortion decision."
These numbers resemble those in a 2006 survey on politics, faith and social issues produced by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. It found that majorities of Republicans (62 percent), Democrats (70 percent) and political independents (66 percent) favored some form of compromise on abortion, as did more than 60 percent of both white evangelicals and white, non-Hispanic Catholics.
Digging deeper, that Pew survey even found that 37 percent of liberal Democrats and 71 percent of moderate or conservative Democrats supported some compromise, backing abortion restrictions that would not be allowed under current interpretations of Roe v. Wade and other U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
Terry Mattingly is director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.